Culture, Class and Cafetoriums: A Candid Conversation with Texan Comedian Cristela Alonzo

click to enlarge KOURY ANGELO
Koury Angelo
For the Tejana comedian Cristela Alonzo, performing in San Antonio is like coming home after a long day. As the first Latina woman to have her own self-titled ABC sitcom in 2014, Alonzo has established herself as a powerhouse in the entertainment industry — all without sacrificing her cultural roots.

In 2017, Netflix featured Alonzo in an hour-long comedy special, Lower Classy, which is now lauded by critics as a pivotal moment in her success. Since then, she has completed several other projects, including the recently released book Music to My Years: A Mixtape Memoir of Growing Up and Standing Up. In this heartfelt personal account, Alonzo dedicates songs like Selena’s "Dreaming of You" to memories of growing up in San Juan, Texas, and finding success as a comedian. Her quick-witted observational humor centered around everyday life as a Latina hits close to home for many first-generation Americans.

Speaking to her over the phone about her upcoming tour, My Affordable Care Act, isn't as scary as talking to someone with their own Netflix comedy special might usually be. Instead, Alonzo's warm tone and brassy laughter makes the conversation feel more like catching up with an old friend or family member than an interview. Although she was, in fact, pressed for time, Alonzo never seemed rushed, and spoke candidly about building a successful career in the entertainment industry as a Texas-born Latina.

What is your approach to comedy most influenced by?
It's evolved over the years, but right now my stand-up comedy is really pushed by the idea of sharing my story. Honestly, I don’t think people like me have our narratives heard enough. The media has this tendency to make Latino news very dramatic and sad all the time, and I just feel like that's an unfair representation. There's a way to inform people with comedy.

Take my brother, for instance. He became a naturalized citizen in 2016 after trying for thirty years. A lot of people don't understand how hard it is, or how long it takes for that to happen. Being undocumented, [my brother] always paid attention to how people talked about the undocumented community — and it would really bother him, how [this talk] would be so sad. It's hard, but it isn't always like that. During that time, he didn't just sit around feeling bad. He also laughed – he loved his life, just like everybody else. After his naturalization ceremony, I asked him, "How does it feel to be an American?" He said, "Sister, I've been American all this time. It just took the government thirty years to understand that."

My family, friends and loved ones really inform what I'm going to talk about in my comedy. I think that there's a funny side to almost every experience, even in ones that some people may see as sad. So in that way, comedy is kind of great to teach people "accidentally."

Comedy can be a really helpful coping mechanism for dealing with a lot of the hard parts of life.
Oh yeah. My family, you know, we were very poor. Whenever I talk about how I grew up, people will always say, "Oh, that sounds so sad." But you know what? Reminiscing on my childhood, I remember a lot of laughter and happiness.

The entertainment industry can be extremely difficult to navigate. How do you think your experience has been different as a Latina woman? I feel like your background as a first-generation American is something a lot of San Antonians can relate to. Has that affected your time in the industry at all?

Actually, this is one of the biggest reasons why San Antonio speaks to me so much as a city. It really wasn't until I left Texas that I realized how different the Latino culture is. You know, even moving to Los Angeles, the Mexican culture there is so different from the culture in San Antonio. It just is, you know?

One of the things that I struggled with the most is getting people in the industry to understand that there can be a lot of cultures under the Latino umbrella. Not only that, there can be a lot of different cultures under the Mexican umbrella. I've had a lot of problems with explaining the difference between Mexican, Puerto Rican and Cuban culture. Promoters want you to go to Miami and talk to Puerto Rican, Cuban media — which, I mean, I'll do! But I also have to explain that I want to hit up the Latino media in Chicago, San Antonio and Phoenix too. A lot of people in the industry don't understand how different the culture is. But for me, it's one of those things that I have to understand, because I live it — and I can tell you, it’s not the same.

Another big problem I've faced in this industry is, if I'm not the first Latina to accomplish something, I'm one of the first ones. It's like trying to build a house while you're still drawing up the blueprints. How do you do that? There's always a piece of me that feels like everything I do won’t succeed, because maybe my role is to open the door and create a pathway for the next person that is going to succeed. It's like I'm the guinea pig, you know? I'm the one who has to make the mistakes, who has to be treated however by people. And then afterwards, those people are like, "Oh, maybe we shouldn't have done that. But it's okay, we learn for later. We learn for next time." That’s been a big problem.

Do you ever get "impostor syndrome" as a Latina? Like, you somehow don't deserve the all the success you’ve earned?
I was just talking about this! Of course, the impostor syndrome is so real — especially with my childhood. Here's the thing: I grew up in a town right next to Mexico. There were a lot of families there, but the way that mine lived was very different from others. We were so poor that the main thing we were focused on was just surviving. When you're trying to deal with survival, people don't really tell you that you matter.

Becoming empowered in that situation is so difficult, because you have to deal with survival on top of everything else. So I grew up feeling like my voice didn't matter, which is actually how many Latinos grow up feeling. There are a lot of examples on how this plays out in politics: I work really hard to get the Latino population to go out and vote. But how can I tell adults that their voice matters when they were never even told that as children? I mean, even though the Latino community — especially Mexican — has been in the United States for years, we're still considered a "new group." It’s like no one knows how to deal with us.

So even when I know I've earned my career, there's a small part of me that feels like I don't deserve it. You know? I also grew up in a Catholic household, and my mom always taught me to be very modest – very humble. And that sticks with you! But there's a difference between being humble and being hard on yourself. So, of course there's a sense of impostor syndrome there.

In so many ways, you are a pioneer for the Latino community. How does that feel for you? Can the expectations of being a role-model ever be too much?

Actually, not at all. The thing is, you can't really control whether someone's going to see you as a role-model or not. With that, you have to remember to be yourself. In the book I have coming out, there's a chapter that talks about Selena Quintanilla. She was very down-to-earth, just like anyone else, and that's one of the biggest reasons why she was so successful. Chances are, you knew someone like Selena: your cousin, your sister — maybe even yourself. That's why she was so inspiring to Latinas, because she actually made us feel like we had the chance to make it.

So if anyone sees me as a role-model, I wear it proudly, but I don't stress about it. I know that it means allowing yourself to make mistakes, owning up to those mistakes, and not being perfect. Because being perfect all the time? That’s not realistic. You have to let people see who you really are, not just an "Instagram-perfect" version. That's why it's so special to me when people take the time to say how I've affected them personally. It means a lot, and I always try to acknowledge them because, again, there just aren't enough Latinos out there being represented.

Can you tell me about the worst gig you've ever had, and compare it to the best?
(Laughs.) The worst? Man, there are so many. I remember, the worst gig I've ever had was at a college cafetorium when I was first starting out. It's hard enough when you're first starting out, cause it's like "oh my god, why am I embarrassing myself on purpose?" On the same night of my performance, there was this fraternity that booked the entire cast of a really popular MTV show, so no one came to my gig — except for one guy, who only turned up to have dinner. He didn't even know the show was going on. The school wouldn't let me cancel because they had already paid me, so they made me do an hour of stand-up for this one guy. The room was set up for like 500 people. There was a stage, there were lights, there was a mic — everything. I was like, "ah, come on man, are you really gonna make me do this?" So I went to his table, sat down, and did my set right next to him, like we were having a conversation. (Laughs.) That was the worst gig I've ever done.

The best gig I've ever done was actually in San Antonio, when I shot my Netflix special. That was the best gig! I mean honestly, that was the best show I've ever done. It meant so much to me, because it was my first hour stand-up special, and it was for Netflix!

I decided to film it in San Antonio because I've always received so much support from the city, and I don't take that lightly. It really means a lot to me. I remember this moment on the day of the show, it was pouring rain. I didn't think anyone was going to show up, and I said, "Oh my god, what am I gonna do?" But people stood out in the rain until it was time to go inside. I couldn't believe it. When I came out onto the stage, people clapped so much, that I don’t even think they realized what they were applauding for. I hadn't even said anything yet, you know? I had just walked out, and even the people at Netflix were like, "Man, that entrance, that was so insane!" I thought, yeah it was crazy, but it makes sense — because in a way, it's like I'm coming home to talk to everybody. Most people know that Netflix Specials are a big deal, and I chose to have that experience with my people. The industry may not understand, but those moments aren't about trying to please the industry. For me, those moments are about making sure my community knows I’m there for them.

$25-$35, Thursday, Oct. 17, 8:00 p.m., Charline McCombs Empire Theatre, 226 N. St. Mary’s St., (210) 226-2333,

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